While I have no intention of watching the PBS Ken Burns Vietnam documentary, it is hard to avoid. One indication is my school sponsoring viewings for our community, each segment introduced by faculty and guests who, it is assumed, will instruct today’s youth on the profound “ambiguities” and “complexities” of the conflict. The unstated implication is that the oversimplified views of those such as myself who regard our attack on Indochina as one of the great atrocities of the 20th century need to be challenged.
Along these lines, it was also hard to avoid Burns’s statement reported by the New York Times that the war “was begun in good faith, by decent people.”
Those of us familiar with the subject will recognize Burns’s phrase as a recapitulation of a familiar theme introduced by former Times’ columnist Anthony Lewis some decades ago. For Lewis, our intervention was best seen not as a crime against humanity but as “blundering efforts to do good.”
One might have thought that Noam Chomsky’s numerous books on the subject might have dispensed Lewis’s views to the trash heap of pith helmets, Gatling guns, Kipling’s White Man’s Burden and other relics of imperial overreach. But no. The same myths which were reflexively circulated to manufacture consent then are still in circulation now.
And so it will come as no surprise that a request for comment finds Chomsky registering something like despair:
“Have written book after book about it, going through the details. Not sure I can face it again.”
Burns’s invocation of the “decency” of those having committed a near genocide makes it necessary for Chomsky to reassert a well worn analogy:
“Just like the German invasion of Poland, in defense against the ‘wild terror’ of the Poles.”
This type of comparison was common enough, even reflexively appealed to, when the war was within living memory. It is unfortunate that it apparently has not crossed into the current century .
Concealing their crimes behind a veil of sanctimony is, of course, a longstanding gambit of political elites.
Let’s hope that students here at Bard will be as capable as their predecessors were in seeing through it.